Paula Deen: Her revelation of diabetes points to a costly American problem

Treating chronic diseases like diabetes consumes 75% of the $2 trillion dollars spent each year in the U.S. for health care costs. Photo: Paul Deen

ST. PAUL, January 23, 2012 — Paula Deen revealed this month that she has a disease: diabetes. Sharing her private condition in a public manner generated a firestorm of response. 

However, this is not just about Paula. It is about all of us facing a huge health care bill in the future unless we turn the tide on chronic disease.

“To improve health in Minnesota, we have to think in terms of prevention, not just treatment,” says Dr. Edward Ehlinger, Minnesota Health Commissioner. “In Minnesota, and nationally, the two main causes of chronic disease and premature death are obesity, caused by poor nutrition and insufficient physical activity, and commercial tobacco use.”  (Tobacco is left for another story. This story is about obesity.)

Obesity related chronic diseases include diabetes, heart disease and stroke, cancer, and mental health. Nationally, tobacco use, physical inactivity, and poor nutrition have been estimated to cause 35 percent of all annual deaths in the United States, or 800,000 deaths each year (Minnesota Department of Health).

Several national studies have estimated the total economic cost (direct and indirect costs) for many chronic diseases and their risk factors. In the U.S., the total annual cost attributable to:

  • Cardiovascular disease is $300 billion
  • Diabetes is nearly $132 billion
  • Arthritis is $128 billion
  • Obesity is $117 billion
  • Smoking is $75 billion (Minnesota Plan to Reduce Obesity and Obesity-Related Chronic Diseases 2008-2013, July 2008)

Paula is now our “poster woman” for the second most costly chronic disease. She is in good company, if not as visible, company. What good could come from this attention?  Perhaps that she is taking responsibility through use of medications and lifestyle to control her disease. Many others are not. Minnesotans who are overweight or obese and are not practicing healthy behaviors include: 

  • the  26 percent who have been told by their health care professional that they have prediabetes (elevated blood glucose levels)
  • the 6 percent who have been told they have diabetes  (2007 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance)

That means that there are many players either on stage or waiting in the wings to join Paula on-stage with diabetes. Paula is in good company (or bad company?) with her disease. What healthy behaviors do they or could they practice? Glucose levels are strongly modified by improved physical activity, healthy eating, and weight loss. So why don’t one out of four prediabetes candidates change their behavior?

Blame it on the genes? Or point to a culture of family and traditions that involve food? What is controversial about Paula and her diabetes is how much, if any, her own choices played into her becoming a diabetic. Was it too much butter and sugar and too few vegetables? Or was it other factors?

The Minnesota Obesity Plan states “Overweight and obesity are generally caused by a lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns, or a combination of the two, with genetics, lifestyle and the environment al playing important roles in determining a person’s weight.”

Paula can be an inspiration all of us, especially to those who are pre-diabetic. Even if genetics and or lifestyle factors enter in, prevention is worth striving towards. “Educating and encouraging individuals to lead lifestyles that are centered on healthy eating and active living and to maintain or strive toward a healthy weight are essential in helping to reduce the financial burden on all of us. (Minnesota Obesity Plan).

The Center for Disease Control recommends that adults participate in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity at least five times per week or 20 minutes of vigorous activity at least three times per week.

As for healthy eating, here is a simple plan:

  • Eat fruits and vegetables, four to nine cups daily (USDA)
  • Reduce the amount of added sugar in your foods
  • Reduce saturated fats
  • Reduce sodium

In our household we own three Paula Deen cookbooks (from a “Paula phase” some years ago). They only come out on very special occasions. My vow is to now think of Paula when I move and when I eat healthy. She is my new “poster woman” for healthy behaviors.


Read more:

Ten foods that pack a positive and tasty nutritional punch


Please credit “Donna Rae Scheffert for Communities” when linking to this story. Read more from Donna Rae Scheffert at Washington Times Communities and Online Leadership Tools.

Donna Rae is an award winning writer, consultant, planner, facilitator, and coach. She holds the coveted ‘Futures’ award was named an Outstanding Faculty member at the University of Minnesota. She has co-authored five books and numerous articles. Connect with Donna at LinkedIn      Follow Donna at Twitter


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Donna Rae Scheffert

Donna Rae Scheffert is a facilitator, consultant and writer. Find more information online at

She lives in Minnesota with her husband and teenage son and daughter.

Honors and awards include University of Minnesota -Distinguished Extension Campus Faculty Award; Minnesota Rural Futures-FUTURES award; and numerous state and national awards for programs and publications.

Scheffert is an author of practical fieldbooks: Committees That Work: Common Traps and Creative Solutions; Social Capital, Building Leadership Programs, and Facilitation Resources available from

Donna Rae is also a Senior Consultant with and an Associate with

Her civic participation includes: Board Member-Community Action Center; Board Member-Women’s Philanthropic Group, and soccer team coordinator.

Photo Credit: Amber Procaccini

Leadership development expert & educator, Donna Rae Scheffert knows how public action by others for others improves lives - she helps people to get involved and provides tools to propel them toward their goals easier, faster, and with more fun. Read more from Donna Rae at

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